Monday, February 01, 2016

on becoming a better teacher

by J J Cohen

When C. came to my office and told me that she was experiencing debilitating anxiety about her progress in my course, I surprised myself by saying the right thing. I thanked her for taking the risk of confiding in me. I asked her if the anxiety was new and if she was experiencing similar feelings about other classes (it was not; she was). I told her I was sorry -- no one deserves to be dogged by worry and unease -- and that her speaking to me was a sign not of the weakness she feared but of great strength. I was not so courageous in college, I told her, and I wish I had been.

C. was the smartest student I’d had in a very long time, but that was beside the point. I asked her to promise to make an immediate appointment at student health services, despite the fact that her parents did not want her to do so. I offered to walk her over if she would like. We decided we would speak again in two days. A good teacher will long be remembered, but I spent too many years assuming that those lasting impressions unfold only at the classroom's front. Well into my career I realized that an offhand remark will (for better or worse) more likely linger than a subtle reading of a complicated text. So will the offer to listen, to affirm, and to walk alongside.

Many college students face serious depression, anxiety, trauma. They often do not know what systems are in place to assist them, or fear seeking that support, or convince themselves they have no right. Too many students suffer in silence and alone. Some students turn to drugs and alcohol to numb themselves. Some students die: an overdose, a jump from a building, a knife. GW has had four student suicides in recent memory. While I cannot know what would drive a particular young man or woman to take a life at a time when it is hardly underway, I would like to think that someone, at some point, might have extended a hand, had they only been asked, had the student only known that they could ask. No, I cannot save anyone. But universities need not be so relentless.

I am grateful for the pedagogical training I received as a graduate student. We spoke often about reading the body language of the room at the same time as focusing on verbal content during discussion sections – and that attentiveness assisted me greatly in thinking about potential impacts of gender and race in the classroom. I learned early what to do when, for example, a male student attempts to talk-over his female peers, and how to know when someone is waiting to be asked to join the conversation. But two sentences of advice, imparted as if impartial truths, stayed with me for too long before I figured out the harm that they had done: We are not trained mental health professionals. Students have a right to fail.

Both these aphorisms are, of course, true. No professor should convince themselves that it is OK to act as a trained mental health professional (that is dangerous, to say the least), and young people really do sometimes choose to screw everything up. But these sayings were imparted to us as injunctions to the same action: back away from a student in distress. Refer that student to Mental Health Services or tutoring: outsource them, and then impose distance. Teachers teach. And now back to engaging your section in Shakespeare Chaucer Gawain etc etc etc.

So for a long time I backed away. I figured it was up to my students to seek and secure the help they needed. The resources were there: a pamphlet told me so. I was off the hook. Except, of course, that was a lie, and I was never off the hook. The resources are not always self-evident and not every student is going to know they have an absolute right to seek reprieve from suffering, to find a way to preserve themselves from suffering and harm. It is tricky having to deal with a student in crisis but just because it is complicated that does not mean that a teacher, likely one of the few adults in a college student’s immediate life at the moment, can self-extricate by stating We are not trained mental health professionals. Students have a right to fail. Yes we should not pretend we can accomplish what we are not trained to do. Yes, of course. But that does not mean we can accomplish nothing. Or walk away. At the very least, we can accompany our students to the Writing Center, to Mental Health Services. We can ask them to tell us how they are doing. We can make clear to them that those who ask for help are brave, and that they have an absolute right to self preservation and self care.

When our son came home from college for the holiday break in December he was experiencing panic attacks, anxiety over the possible arrival of panic attacks, and severe insomnia because even though he knew he was in good health he was afraid that he might suffer a heart attack or aneurysm. Some nights in December I had to sleep in the same room with him for him to doze at all. I rubbed his back. I shared his bed, clinging to the side so I would not fall out. I felt like I did when he was very young and had a fever: in the back of my mind I could not shake the fear that if I left the room he might die. He does not know this but sometimes that December when his breathing finally eased and sleep took him into peace, my eyes would fill with tears and I would not know what to do. I could not return to sleep after that.

I am not trained as a mental health counselor and would never pretend to be able to solve anything for a student in crisis. But I know that I can listen attentively, praise them for what they are doing right, walk with them to where they can receive they help, wait with them if they want. And then check back.

You will find this note on every syllabus I compose:
University Mental Health Services 202-994-5300The University Mental Health Services offers 24/7 assistance and referral to address students’ personal, social, career, and study skills problems. Services for students include crisis and emergency mental health consultation and confidential assessment, counseling services (individual and small group), and referrals. Mental Health Services is located on the ground floor of the Marvin Center and maintains a branch at the Mount Vernon campus. Both have walk in hours as well as appointments. For additional information, call 202-994-5300 or refer to the website: GW Faculty have access to the CARE Network to get you the help you need. Please talk to me for more information. I will also walk you to the Mental Health Services office if you would like: just ask. 
Things are much better now with our son. The panic attacks began in November, crested in December, and were gone by the time he returned to campus in January. I did not quite recognize him, when he returned for his holiday break: his anxiety could so quickly become dread, and I began to fear he would wander beyond reach. But he knew he had a right to seek the help he required. He had met already with a counselor at Mental Health Services, just after his first anxiety episode. He spoke openly with his friends about what was unfolding, and several admitted that they experienced the same thing (it is really hard to be a college freshman; we forget that too easily, and at our students' peril). By the time he left our house in January to return to campus, though, he was back to his usual self, happy and at ease. Mindfulness training is helping. The biggest aid, though, was biofeedback. In a few weeks' worth of sessions it changed his life. Alex told me I could share his story with you, because he believes that keeping such narratives private makes something already difficult to speak about become impossible to address. I wish I had been as wise as he is at age 18. And yes, I'm very proud.


I do not think that I can save anyone. I can't do it as a teacher, and I probably can't do it as a parent, either. I can listen. I can walk with someone to a door to ensure that it is open and a welcome awaits on the other side. I can try to be for my students the kind of teacher I hope our own children have. I am not saying I have got it right. I am only saying, I know I cannot cease to try.


Ashby Kinch said...

Thanks for this, Jeffrey. I had two very intense student experiences in the fall, and it led me to reach out to a few people in student services to try to get a sense of the broader lay of the land. Evidently, people who work in residence halls, student life, and counseling say that there is a nationwide uptick in student psychological and mental distress. Hard to pin down causes, but you hear a lot of talk about family pressure, financial pressure, the economy, global warming: the endemic features of a society in flux, crisis, and self-doubt. But there is always a personal story, as well, and that first conversation with somebody outside the family is often the most important step to some kind of healing. I wish you and your son the very best.

LAudaP said...

I'd also like to thank you for this post, and for "being there" for your students. Not only did I personally suffer similarly in college, and not only did a professor help to save my own life, but as a future teacher I often wonder if I should bring that experience with me for my students, and to attempt to activate what I learned during those years for other young people in need, simply in the way of being present and warm, and praising courage when one sees it. Your voice is a very welcome addition to my considerations of the matter.

Emma said...

Thanks for this, Jeffrey - it's a heartfelt post and all the more valuable for that. I've been reflecting on this quite a bit lately, as I've been teaching a training session for postgraduates and others teaching for the first time. How can we strike a balance between being open and generous to students and taking care of ourselves as teachers as well? That said, I really like your idea of putting mention of mental health services in the syllabus and offering to walk students there. I think those of us who are clued up to mental health issues forget how many others are not, and how students may have had some very bad experiences with teachers who don't understand at all. Even just making it known that you will come to a support situation sympathetic to issues of mental/emotional distress is a big help, especially for students who have been brushed off elsewhere and might have been put off asking for the help they need.

I do tell those I work with that we are not mental health professionals - but as you say, that can be interpreted as 'so take a hands-off approach'. I like the approach here - we are not mental health professionals, but we can be useful alongside them in helping students to access the services they need and to continue learning in the best way for them while doing so.

Rebecca Brackmann said...

I usually invite the school counselor to speak briefly to my classes at the start of term (especially developmental English, since those students are often very vulnerable). He discusses their services, and we talk a little about how we can all look out for each other and encourage others to seek help. I don't know if it has ever gotten anyone past the hurdle of taking the first step, but it might and that's enough for me.

karina said...

Hi Jeffrey,

Thank you for making this post. I had a couple of teachers in highschool who were really remarkable in helping in the exact ways you mention above - telling us about resources, and one time when my friend was feeling suicidal after starting her anti-depressant, a teacher took her to the doctor and made sure it was attended to. Their care for us as individuals outside of the classroom made a huge impact in our lives. Thank you for sharing your experience; I hope others take it to heart.

Briana said...

Thank you for this post. I was once that struggling college student, and I leaned heavily on counseling services and other resources my college provided. I doubt I would have made it without them. As a teacher, I see similar struggles in my students. I always direct them to counseling services, but I've been hesitant to do anything to seem as though I'm pushing "too hard." (I suppose I'm concerned that my own positive experience with counseling might color my opinion of it, and so I'm pushing it on my students.) After reading this, though, I'm starting to re-think that hesitance. I appreciate the thoughtfulness. Thank you.